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The Virtue of Selfishness : A New Concept of Egoism ()


Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium

    The Objectivist ethics, in essence, hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own
    happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice
    others to himself.
        -Ayn Rand

    You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.
        -Flannery O'Connor

In considering the philosophy of Ayn Rand, it is always important to keep in mind the prevailing intellectual climate against which she was forced to push.  Though her absolutist vision of individualism may appear overly harsh and dogmatic to us now, it may well have been a necessary counterweight to the general acceptance of statism in the West in the wake of the Great Depression.  At a time when European nations succumbed, disastrously, to the various allures of fascism, communism, and socialism, and even the United States experimented with the big government programs of the New Deal and Great Society, maybe her rigid espousal of freedom was a required response.  As another icon of the era proclaimed :

    I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also
    that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

The very extremity of their views made figures like Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater easy objects of fun, but also inspired several generations of conservative/libertarian activists (most famously Alan Greenspan in Rand's case), who eventually saw these views vindicated with our victory in the Cold War and the return to smaller government and aggressive free market capitalism.

This collection of essays represents a systematic attempt to outline Rand's philosophy, with the first entry, "The Objectivist Ethics," offering the best statement.  Rand begins by defining ethics :

    It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions--the choices and actions that determine the
    purpose and the course of his life.

Next she identifies the values that should guide those ethical choices :

    An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means--it sets the
    standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated.  An organism's life is its standard of value :
    that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.

Therefore :

    The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics--the standard by which one judges what is good or
    evil--is man's life, or : that which is required for man's survival qua man.

    Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is
    the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

    Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort,
    the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are : thinking and productive
    work.

And so :

    The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the standard of value--and his own life as the ethical
    purpose of every individual man.

Which leads to the idea that :

    The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every
    living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others--and,
    therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing
    others to himself.  To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is
    man's highest moral purpose.

And living for your own sake really is just as selfish as it sounds :

    The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness--which means:
    the values required for man's survival qua man--which means : the values required for human
    survival--not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the 'aspirations,' the feelings, the
    whims or the needs of irrational brutes...

    The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be
    achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not
    clash--that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not
    make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.

Within this scheme then, what is the proper role of government ? :

    The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means : to
    protect him from physical violence--to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his
    own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness.

    ...

    [T]he Objectivist ethics is the moral base needed by that politico-economic system which, today, is
    being destroyed all over the world, destroyed precisely for lack of a moral, philosophical defense
    and validation : the original American system, Capitalism.

    ...

    When I say 'capitalism,' I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism--with
    a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of
    state and church.

Now I have to admit that I find much to commend in the philosophy that she's laid out, despite its many weaknesses as theory and despite the rather harsh results it might lead to in practice.  Moreover, take the theory out of the abstract and consider it in the context of her times, and it is certainly more attractive than the creeping authoritarianism, planned economies, and wealth redistribution that the West was headed towards for most of the 20th Century.

Objectivism has been the target of innumerable attacks and its weaknesses have been thoroughly documented, so I'll not try to rehash them all here (see the links below for some essays that do the job).  I'd just like to mention a couple of the things that really jump out at me.  First, though I agree with her position that reason should be the guide to human action and not feelings, this is a personal preference that we happen to share; there is no abstract necessity for mankind generally to choose reason.  And having so chosen, we both would opt for freedom as the primary value, but someone who has chosen the feelings as a guide to their ethics, would be justified, within the four corners of their ethos, in making a more mutual survival their primary value.  This is the difference, discussed here many times, between freedom and security, which I have argued has some correlation to gender.  Men, thanks to historical circumstances, and perhaps to biology, have tended to be more confident in their ability to survive and fend for themselves, and so have tended to come down on the side of freedom.  Women, understandably less confident, have favored security, that their survival might be assured even if it requires curtailing freedom in general.  To dismiss this countervailing viewpoint as irrational may even be true, but that does not delegitimize it.  If survival is the ethical purpose of every man, why shouldn't those who question their capacity to survive on their own seek to force others to help ?

The larger issue raised by Objectivism though is whether, even assuming an ideal world where the ethics could be applied absolutely, it suffices.  Would an existence wherein each of us was concerned solely with our own survival really be worth living ?  Even if it can be argued that we had arrived at the imperative to survive through a process of reasoning, would we be any better than animals ?  I think not.  And this is the most powerful criticism not merely of Objectivism but of pure reason, of capitalism, and of individualism in general : in the absence of any values external to man (presumably religious, but at least spiritual in some form), man's life or his freedom or his happiness are all standards arbitrarily adopted, and therefore not clearly superior to other standards which might otherwise be arbitrarily adopted.  So what makes my rational decision to choose freedom any better than the next person's emotional decision to choose forced sharing of resources ?  And suppose I get my freedom, what's the point if all I use it for is to further my own inevitably temporary survival ?  There have to be some broader purposes to human existence, don't there ?

Though life is indeed precious, the continued existence of each of us is simply not a fit measure for the meaning of our lives.  So in the end I find it easier to forgive Ayn Rand's stridency--her overbearing insistence on the primacy of the individual and individual concerns was appropriate to the time--than the narrowness of her vision.  Objectivism, like Existentialism, is ultimately too niggardly a philosophy for my tastes.  Freedom must be a means to get us somewhere, not an end in itself; otherwise it is simply one end among many that we might choose from.  We must raise our eyes from our own navels in order to find absolute meaning in our lives, but Objectivism stubbornly refuses to do so.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

Ayn Rand Links:

    -REVIEW: of We the Living (John Gray, New Statesman)
    -ARTICLE: Scandals lead execs to 'Atlas Shrugged' (Del Jones, 09/24/2002, USA TODAY)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Ayn Rand (1905-1982) - original name Alice (in some sources Alissa) Rosenbaum (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "ayn rand".
    -INTERVIEW : with Ayn Rand (Alvin Toffler, Playboy Interview, 1964)
    -Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand
    -The Ayn Rand Institute (is the center for the advancement of Objectivism)
    -The Objectivist Center (an open community for those interested in Ayn Rand and Objectivism)
    -The Intellectual Activist: an Objectivist Review
    -The Daily Objectivist
    -Capitalism Magazine
    -Full Context (newsletter, forum for Objectivist debates)
    -Objectivism - The Philosophy of Reason
    -TCNJ Ayn Rand Society: a student organization at The College of New Jersey
    -Philosophy:  The Integrating Science (examines philosophy from an Objectivist viewpoint)
    -Sciabarra's Dialectics and Liberty site
    -The Capitalism Site
    -Ayn Rand, Objectivism Online Resource Directories (Free Market Net)
    -Ayn Rand (1905-1982) ( Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. , Friesian.com)
    -Objectivism and Ayn Rand (Full Context)
    -The Jefferson School of Philosophy, Economics, and Psychology (THE INTELLECTUAL VOICE OF CAPITALISM ON THE INTERNET)
    -The Unofficial Web Site for the Journals of Ayn Rand
    -Living On Earth: An Objectivist Collection
    -Objectivism and Ayn Rand: A Cultural Reference Archive (newspaper and magazine articles)
    -Objectivist Links Plus (Objectivist Center)
    -The Egoist Archive
    -Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand
     -ARTICLE: Ayn Rand Has Finally Caught the Attention of Scholars (JEFF SHARLET, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -ARTICLE: Alan's bubble Edward Chancellor Alan Greenspan, the second most powerful man in the US, adheres to the "radical capitalism" of Ayn Rand (Edward Chancellor, Prospect)
    -ESSAY: AYN RAND: NOVELIST WITH A MESSAGE; An Appreciation  (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Fallacies of Egoism and Altruism, and the Fundamental Principle of Morality  (after Kant and Nelson)(Kelly Ross, History of Philosophy)
    -ESSAY: Liberals and Ayn Rand  (James Fallows, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY : THE HEIRS OF AYN RAND : HAS OBJECTIVISM GONE SUBJECTIVE? (SCOTT MCLEMEE, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY: Master Builder (Lorine Pruette, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: WHY I AM NOT AN OBJECTIVIST Michael Huemer
    -ESSAY : The (Five) Objectivist Ethics (Ari Armstrong)
    -ESSAY : Three Objections to Ayn Rand's Objectivist Ethics (Digital Chicken, 23 January 2000)
    -ESSAY : Critique of "The Objectivist Ethics"
    -ESSAY : Notes on The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand
    -ESSAY : The Rights (and Wrongs) of Ayn Rand (Robert Bass)
    -ESSAY : THE UNLIKELIEST CULT IN HISTORY (MICHAEL SHERMER, Skeptics Society)
    -ESSAY : Rand's work: style and quality (Gary Merril)
    -ESSAY : Some Problems with Ayn Rand's Derivation of Ought from Is (David Friedman)
    -ESSAY: Facts, Values and Moral Sanctions: An Open Letter To Objectivists (Robert J. Bidinotto)
    -ESSAY : What Conservatives Owe Ayn Rand (Gord Gekko, Enter Stage Right)
    -ESSAY : The Obligatory Proto-Capitalist Worldview: Ayn Rand : Why so many high-tech executives have declared allegiance to Randian objectivism  (Christopher Hitchens, August 2001, Business 2.0)
    -ESSAY : THE HEIRS OF AYN RAND HAS OBJECTIVISM GONE SUBJECTIVE? (SCOTT MCLEMEE, Lingua Franca)
     -INTERVIEW: PRC Forum:  Barbara Branden author of "The Passion of Ayn Rand (Idea Channel)
    -LINKS : Objectivism and Ayn Rand : A Cultural Reference Archive
    -LINKS : Criticisms of Objectivism (or Ayn Rand)
    -LINKS : Directory - Objectivism
    -LINKS : Directory - Essays Against Objectivism (Beebware)
    -LINKS : Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982) (The Internet Public Library, Online Literary Criticism Collection)
    -LINKS : Ayn Rand Links (2Think)
    -ARCHIVES : "ayn rand" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (Lorine Pruette, NY Times, May 16, 1943)
    -REVIEW : of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (Whittaker Chambers, National Review, 12/28/57)
    -REVIEW : of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (Rob Slade, Internet Review Project)
     -REVIEW: of THE PASSION OF AYN RAND By Barbara Branden (Peter L. Berger, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of  LETTERS OF AYN RAND Edited by Michael S. Berliner (CHRISTOPHER COX, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of  LETTERS OF AYN RAND Edited by Michael S. Berliner (Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Reason)
     -REVIEW: of  Journals of Ayn Rand Edited by David Harriman (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman, foreword by Leonard Peikoff (Walter Olson, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of Objectivism : The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff (Harry Binswanger, Intellectual Activist)
    -REVIEW : of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra (Cathy Young, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of PASSIONATE MINDS Women Rewriting the World. By Claudia Roth Pierpont (Morris Dickstein, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE ART OF NONFICTION: A GUIDE FOR WRITERS AND READERS By Ayn Rand Edited by Robert Mayhew Introduction by Peter Schwartz (Harry Bruce, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of  What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (Charles Oliver, Reason)

NATHANIEL BRANDEN:
    -Nathaniel Branden website
    -ESSAY : The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand: A Personal Statement (Nathaniel Branden)
    -BOOKNOTES: Author: Nathaniel Branden Title: Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand Air date: July 2, 1989 (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW: of  JUDGMENT DAY My Years With Ayn Rand By Nathaniel Branden (Susan Brownmiller, NY Times Book Review)
     -RESPONSE: BIOGRAPHY "THE PASSION OF AYN RAND" IS AN INACCURATE CHRONICLE (David P. Hayes)

LIBERTARIANISM :
    -Libertarian Party
    -Reason Magazine

ETHICS :
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : ethics

Comments:

This is the kind of book that makes people think that anyone who takes Rand seriously should be put in the stocks. Her philosophy is an excuse to not have to give so much as a crap about other people. Which makes it about one rung up the ladder from teenagers who don't care about anything but themselves, either.

- Justin K.

- Jan-05-2007, 13:24

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